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Hoosier scientist working on colorful way to spot diseases
 
By Michele F. Mihaljevich
Indiana Correspondent

ATLANTA, Ind. – If Kyle Mohler’s research goes as he plans, in a few years, farmers will be able to look at their corn and other row crops, see areas of blue or red on the plants, and immediately know if those crops are suffering from disease or insect infestation.
Mohler, founder and CEO of Insignum AgTech, said his goal is to help farmers narrow down what potential diseases to treat for so they can be more productive. He began studying the situation after seeing how his dad and brother – who farm in Boone County, Ind. – used fungicides on their farm.
“They decided to include fungicides in the management plan before the season began,” he explained. “It didn’t make sense to me that they would purchase a product and decide to spray for disease before seeds were even in the ground. Why would you treat for a problem that you don’t know you have? Turns out with crop diseases, that can be a profitable strategy because by the time a farmer sees disease, it’s too late to save the crop. Plants can’t heal like we can. Effective control has to be preventative.”
Mohler said he had learned about plant reactions to diseases and the genetics of pigment production. After thinking about it, “(I) put those two concepts together to create the basic technology that was the foundation of Insignum,” he noted.
He started the company in 2019. Insignum rents laboratory, office and greenhouse space from Beck’s Hybrids. Beck’s does not own any of Insignum nor have they invested in it, Mohler said.
Mohler’s company is currently working on technology that reveals all corn diseases. He eventually hopes to expand to other row crops.
The technology works by combining two innate plant functions, he said. “As soon as a spore gets into a leaf, the plant activates its defense system. We use that genetic response to turn on the plant’s pigment production system. All plants have the ability to make purple/red/blue pigments, but normally that system is turned off. So, we’re creating a new gene from pieces of DNA that are already present in the plant, without foreign DNA. Our gene is a new tool for growers made from natural products.
“In the future, we plan on using different pigments, like red or blue, to specifically signal for other problems, like insect attack or low nitrogen. With a full suite of traits, farmers could get a plant-by-plant, color-coded readout of whatever is limiting the crops, so they can optimize health and productivity to maximize yields and sustainability. The concept translates to all other crops as well.”
Mohler said Insignum’s trait in corn shows farmers exactly when, where and if disease is first starting so they can treat right on time and only if necessary. All told, he said, the company estimated that farmers would be about $40 per acre better off using Insignum technology, not including the potential cost of their trait.
It’s possible that Mohler’s technology would allow farmers to spot diseases faster, he said.
“We often see purple color appear before any other symptom, and about a week or more before disease can be identified,” he stated. “It can be hard to physically walk fields and thoroughly scout. Because our color changes can be seen by a color camera, a satellite, drone/airplane, or something ground based could detect the purple signal.”
He said equipment manufacturers are beginning to roll out smart sprayers for precise weed management. Those same cameras could be used to detect Insignum’s signals, using a different algorithm, and could apply a treatment within milliseconds while driving across the field, Mohler said. “Some farmers may choose to scout separately and spray the entire field upon first detection, but other situations may be best to use precision ag techniques for disease management,” he added.
Farmers who do and don’t spray fungicides can benefit from the technology, Mohler said.
Eighty percent of the nation’s farmers don’t spray fungicides and ignore diseases, he said. The country’s farmers lose about $5 billion worth of corn to diseases every year, according to cropprotectionnetwork.org. That works out to $50-$60 per acre, with high variability from field to field, region to region, and year to year, Mohler said.
The benefit to farmers who don’t use fungicides is they can “improve disease control, and therefore increase productivity and profitability. These growers would have confidence that their dollars spent will make returns because our trait reveals disease before the damage is done.”
For farmers who do spay every year, “they can reduce fungicide applications that would be unnecessary and save costs, besides increasing their farm’s sustainability. In addition, spraying when not necessary will lead to disease resistance to fungicides, exactly how weeds have developed herbicide resistance. (Also), if they were going to treat anyway and disease does appear, they can adjust the timing of their application to be more effective.”
Insignum is in its third year of field trials. Mohler said the company’s technology has reacted to every fungal disease that’s been seen on their corn. The company is working on its final version of the trait, which Mohler said he expects to be ready for field testing during next year’s growing season.
Insignum has had conversations with many seed companies. Mohler said. This year, they’re testing with Beck’s Hybrids and Farmers Business Network. He said their product could be in seed lineups in five years. Mohler said his company intends to license their trait to seed companies, and not become a seed company itself or sell directly to farmers.
Mohler grew up on his family’s farm in Boone County. He has a doctorate in plant biochemistry from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He was a postdoctoral research associate at Purdue University. His undergraduate degree is also from Purdue.
Insignum will host a Field Demonstration Day near Lebanon, Ind., on Aug. 21. To sign up, reach out to kyle@insignumagtech.com.
Earlier this year, Purdue Research Foundation, Elevate Ventures, Ag Ventures Alliance and others invested in the company. Mohler said Ag Ventures Alliance is a nationwide group of farmers, concentrated in Iowa, who pooled their capital to invest in startups that will improve on-farm profitability.
For more information, visit www.insignum.ag.
8/15/2023